Memo to self: “I’m swamped” may be a self-imposed condition

This piece is especially for fellow academicians and others who find that work-life balance often turns into an anxious work-life blend.

At the recent “Work and Well-Being 2012″ conference in Chicago (sponsored by the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program of the American Psychological Association), Larissa Barber, an organizational psychology professor at Northern Illinois University, gave a thought-provoking talk on work-life balance.

Dr. Barber explained that we may disengage or “recover” from work in four ways: (1) “psychological detachment”; (2) “mastery experiences” (such as hobbies or home projects); (3) relaxation; and (4) sleep. Unfortunately, job demands and technologies that bridge work and home can make it difficult to achieve a healthy sense of disconnection from work.

Her words rang true to me. When it comes to work-life balance, and applying the four modes of healthy disengagement, I often fail miserably.

Academic work and careers

I understand why folks outside of academe believe that we professors have a pretty cushy deal. After all, most of us are not in the classroom for hours upon hours each day, we have a lot of flexibility in our schedules, and we appear to have “summers off.”

In reality, however, professors who are truly engaged in their work often are extraordinarily busy. Personal motivation, institutional and professional expectations, and choices concerning one’s activities combine to fill up time, and commitments can stack up very quickly.

I know how this feels. For most of the spring and early summer, I’ve been on a recurring weekly cycle of maybe four days at home in Boston, with the remainder of the week on the road, mostly to fulfill various speaking and meeting commitments.

Even during weeks that I’m not scheduled to travel, I’ve been getting anxious by Tuesday, conditioned to anticipate my next trip. And to keep up with things, my “road warrior” kit of gadgets I take on trips keeps expanding, sometimes including a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone — with all the cables and rechargers that come with them.

I am extremely grateful for the many opportunities to do work that I care about. However, the recent pace has left me feeling tired and frazzled — not to mention way behind on projects that are important to me.

On being “crazy busy”

And here’s a rub: It’s not as if a gun was held to my head to accept these various invitations.

In a recent piece for New York Times, Tim Kreider explores the phenomenon of being “crazy busy,” starting with kids whose every hour is booked up with activities, and extending to adults whose daily schedules seemingly offer no respite. On a personal level, he nails the fact that — at least at the point of saying “yes” or “no” — many adults who claim they have no free moments had some choice in the matter:

It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

His dime store therapist insight resonates as well:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

I plead guilty. To me, creating a meaningful life is what our time on Earth is all about. But too often this has translated into overcommitting myself. When I tell people “I’m swamped,” I must concede that some of this stems from my own choices.

There’s always more

We continue to ratchet up expectations for occupational and professional success. We worship the mantra of “work hard, play hard.” If you don’t keep doing more, you’ll fall behind and never catch up — or perhaps miss out on that “big opportunity,” even if it’s something you don’t necessarily want.

It all fits well with this era of hyper-capitalism that sadly has become a cultural norm.

Some people thrive on this lifestyle and are much better than me at juggling all their commitments. But for many of the rest of us, a more balanced way of living may be the healthier option. It requires engaging in some personal triage to sort it all out, but this process alone can be a valuable one.

Hmm, this gives me something to think about during my next plane flight…

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance?

All too often, we think of work-life balance as (1) work and (2) everything else. That “everything else” includes family and friends, perhaps some socializing or watching television, and attending to necessary chores. (I hasten to add that for many stay-at-home parents, work and everything else may be one in the same!)

Let me add a third pillar to our model, that of avocations and hobbies, which can be sources of considerable satisfaction, especially when work and home bring more stress than balance.

Avocations

Two summers ago, I wrote in praise of avocations:

I am beginning to believe that our avocations will save us, personally in terms of enriching our lives, and publicly in terms of contributing to the greater community.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines an avocation as “a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation especially for enjoyment.”  That’s a good start, but I want to add a few other qualities that separate avocation from a pure hobby, such as a sense of accomplishment and contribution to the broader community.

Hobbies, too

Let me add similar sentiments for a good hobby, which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines as “a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.”

A hobby may not result in a tangible something along the lines of many avocations (books, music, art, etc.), and it typically does not break even in terms of monies spent. Nevertheless, it can be a tremendous source of personal satisfaction and a way to build community.

What Google tells us

If my Google searches are any indication (using “work-life balance,” “hobby,” and “avocation”), we link hobbies with the concept of work-life balance much more than we do avocations.

The commentary on work-life balance regards hobbies as healthy release valves for the stressors of work and life. I agree; they allow us to lose ourselves in an enjoyable pastime.

Release valve vs. flow

University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1997) (pp. 28-29), urges us to seek states of flow in our lives, those experiences when “heart, will, and mind are on the same page.”  In these moments, “what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony.”

This is where many avocations enter the picture. They allow people to pursue a meaningful activity resulting in that elusive state of flow — one that may elude them in their working lives. Avocations typically are more than release valves from life’s pressures; rather, they offer our lives a different dimension.

On this blog, I know that I talk a lot about improving work and creating better workplaces. But the reality is that for many, work remains an means to an end, rather than an end in itself. For those who harbor unrealized passions, the avocational route may provide deep satisfaction.

Why this stuff is important

I believe these third places in our lives are going to become ever more significant. They will provide us with outlets for pent-up creativity, some of which we can share with others. They will allow to do, collect, sort, feature, and make things that bring us satisfaction.  In sum, they will help to give our lives meaning.

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Related posts

How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balance life” (2011)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

When “heart, will, and mind are on the same page” (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Workplace wellness and workplace bullying

When you hear the term “employee wellness,” do you also think about “workplace bullying”?

That question has been buzzing through my head since yesterday, when it was my pleasure to speak at a program on creating healthy workplaces, sponsored by the New England Work & Family Association (NEWFA) — a group of human resources and wellness program professionals committed to supporting work-life balance — and hosted by the Boston College Center for Work and Family.

A tale of two halves

The first half of the program was an interesting panel discussion about workplace wellness programs, featuring presentations by NEWFA members who have developed and managed wellness programs. We heard about a variety of useful, pro-active initiatives, including health education and coaching (e.g., nutrition, exercise, smoking cessation), stress reduction, and mindfulness training.

The second half of the program was my presentation about workplace bullying and the challenges facing HR. Although I framed my remarks within the context of promoting healthy workplaces, it was clear that my piece was about the “dark” side of work. How else to describe a phenomenon that reduces productivity and morale and triggers a long list of negative health outcomes?

Will the twain meet?

Both pieces of the program related to the same general topic, namely, the creation and sustenance of healthy workplaces that embrace both productivity and employee well-being.  However, I couldn’t help but notice how the room tensed up as my talk explored the details about workplace bullying.

As I told the group, workplace bullying is a very threatening topic to many organizations, especially when the behavior is frequent and comes from a top-down direction. After all, boss-to-subordinate bullying is the most common combination, at least in the U.S. Furthermore, bullying and mobbing behaviors tend to be fueled by organizational cultures that enable or even encourage them. In short, bullying at work often points to responsibility at the top.

Contrasts in dealing with senior management

Perhaps this explains a fundamental difference in how and why senior management is consulted by HR.

Speakers on the panel about employee wellness explained that they often didn’t have to go to top management for specific approval about every new initiative they developed. In some cases, they simply went ahead with a program that eventually would become a regular offering, with no apparent pushback from the corner office.

When I talked about incorporating workplace bullying prevention and response into HR practices and training, however, I saw knowing nods in response to my advice to assess management tolerance for such initiatives and to consult legal counsel on liability exposure.

An integrated perspective

Perhaps I’m making excuses for the pizza I enjoyed the other night, but I don’t think we can de-couple bad habits such as unhealthy eating and smoking from undue stress at work. Indeed, it strikes me as ironic that we can talk more openly about wellness programs designed to reduce stress and improve health habits, while sometimes sweeping under the rug work-related conditions — such as bullying — that create a need for them.

In short, the quest for healthy workplaces cannot ignore fundamental conditions of work. It’s why I am thankful that NEWFA and Boston College created a program that allowed us to consider the workplace in a more balanced light.

A gift from our elders: Turning their shared regrets into our opportunities

In a society that worships youth and images of youthfulness, all too often we overlook precious opportunities to learn from those who have been around the block before us. As a counter to this mindset, palliative care provider Bronnie Ware asked people nearing the end of their life journeys to share what regrets they have carried into their later years.

Here are their top five regrets, as drawn from her conversations:

1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” (number one lament)

2. “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” (men especially)

3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”

4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” (“surprisingly common” regret)

To expound on what she learned, Ware has a new book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing (2011), available in both paperback and a very inexpensive Kindle edition.

A gift for the New Year

Ware’s full blog article is absolutely worth your click-and-read, and you may be motivated to get her book as well.

Especially as we approach or pass certain age milestones, or as we bemoan the passage of time often marked by a new year, we may be reluctant to heed the advice of those who are a decade (or two or three) older, as if paying attention suddenly accelerates our own aging. In reality, however, this is priceless wisdom, offered to many of us at points in our lives when we have the freedom to make changes and choices.

Some of these points may relate to career paths taken or not taken. Others may pertain to too much attention given to work in our lives. And a few remind us of the important people in our lives.

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but stuff like this provides welcomed food for thought as we turn the calendar.

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Related post

The lessons of nostalgia

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Hat tip to Ann Appa via Facebook for Ware article.

How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balanced life”

The importance of “work-life balance” is something of a shibboleth to those of us who talk and write about psychologically healthy work environments, and on numerous occasions I’ve made blithe references to it. But at times, I find myself questioning whether this is an unattainable and sometimes wrongheaded ideal — at least as applied to individuals.

Parsing the definition

Wikipedia (link here) defines work-life balance as:

a broad concept including proper prioritizing between “work” (career and ambition) on one hand and “life” (Health, pleasure, leisure, family and spiritual development) on the other.

The mere use of the word “balance” leads us to a debate that cannot be resolved. How do we apportion our time among these categories? Is it 50/50, 30/70, or 60/40?

And how do we define “work”? For example, “family” usually is placed in the “life” side of the ledger. But I doubt that a parent taking care of kids equates family responsibilities with leisure! For many, it’s physically and emotionally demanding work.

Time at work

Beyond the definitional nitpicking, I get the general idea: We spend a lot of time at work, especially in America. Economist Juliet Schor brought this issue into our contemporary policy debates in her 1993 book, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, marshaling data showing that U.S. workers spend a lot more time at work than counterparts in other nations.

So, in questioning the concept of work-life balance, I agree that things in America (and elsewhere!) are out of, umm, balance.

“I want it all”

But implicit in the notion of work-life balance is the idea that we can have it all, if only we can find the elusive formula for fitting the pieces together in the right way.

The YouTube video pasted into this article — from the Broadway show “Babe” — captures that wishful thinking. Three women of different ages and life circumstances meet by chance in a doctor’s office, and they share with each other how they want it all.

But most of us can’t

Way back in 1985, Norman Redlich, the dean of NYU Law School, referenced those Broadway lyrics in his remarks at our graduation convocation. His message: It sounds great, but most of us can’t have it all. There are choices to make and realities to navigate in a life that moves all too quickly.

So there we were, sitting among family and friends in beautiful Carnegie Hall, thinking that the world is our oyster, and the dean is telling us it’s probably not.

It’s one of the few useful pieces of advice I’ve heard among a sea of mostly banal, forgettable remarks at graduation ceremonies.

Instead

Many women, especially, have understood the impossibility — or at least the unlikelihood — of having all of life’s pieces conveniently coming together at the right places and right times.

Instead of chasing such an elusive goal, I suggest that we all redirect our focus to qualitative questions of what makes for a good and meaningful life, while remaining aware that choices and events may constrict our flexibility.

For some, that meaningful life may be grounded in raising a family or pursuing an avocation. For others, it may mean devotion to a career or a cause. For lots, it will involve a perpetual juggling act. A fortunate few may achieve a zen-like blend that allows them to check all the boxes. And still others may find meaning in overcoming significant personal or family challenges.

“She lived a balanced life”

Ultimately, aren’t we — and the world — better off for having made a positive difference in some way? You know, like starting a company, raising a family, helping those in need, contributing to the community, or inventing or creating or making or fixing something?

As I see it, work-life balance should remain a priority for employment relations, but when it comes to individual lives, we need to embrace a much deeper set of questions. After all, does anyone really want to be remembered for having “lived a balanced life”?

***

Related posts

Beyond happiness: Founder of “positive psychology” movement expands his vision

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter your way to it?)

What will be your body of work?

Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter?

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June 11 update: In a sad coincidence, Dean Redlich died this week. His obituary, which details his rich life and career, can be read here.

The Workplace Bill of Rights by Workplace Fairness

Workplace Fairness is a non-profit organization dedicated to education and advocacy about employee rights. I’ve been meaning to share their Workplace Bill of Rights (link here), a comprehensive statement of basic rights and protections that all workers should enjoy:

1. Employees should be treated with honesty and respect.

2. Working full-time should guarantee a basic standard of living.

3. Workplaces should be free of discrimination.

4. No working person should be without health insurance.

5. No one should have to work his or her entire life.

6. Employees should be able to leave a job with dignity.

7. Every workplace should be as safe as possible.

8. There is more to life than work.

9. Employees are entitled to work together.

Covers workplace bullying

On the Workplace Fairness website, each core right is accompanied by a full explanation. No. 1 — the right to be treated “with honesty and respect” — states that “workplaces should be free of verbal abuse, threats, sabotage, and bullying of any kind.” Bravo!

Work on TV: Cop dramas

I love good cop dramas on TV, not only for their entertainment value, but also because they do a great job of portraying the ups and downs of working for a living.  Here are some of the underlying themes that are prominent in many these shows:

1. Pursuing one’s passion (the bad and good of it)

2. Career advancement (triumph and disappointment)

3. Diversity and inclusion (often not a lot of it)

4. Work-life balance (mainly lack thereof)

5. Incivility and bullying (often lots of both)

6. Politics (both in-house and electoral)

7. Ethics (good cop, bad cop)

8. Dispute resolution (from informal chats to murder)

My favorites (alphabetical order)

I’ve written about two of these shows before (The Wire and Prime Suspect), but here’s a longer list of my favorite police dramas:

Blue Bloods — A brand new weekly, it’s among a minority of cop shows built around a non-dysfunctional family. Tom Selleck is excellent as the New York City police commissioner.

Foyle’s War — A treat from PBS, this ongoing series is set in small town England during World War Two, featuring Michael Kitchen as Inspector Christopher Foyle.

Hill Street Blues (*) — Pathbreaking 80s classic set in an unspecified American big city. Hey, let’s be careful out there.

Homicide: Life on the Street (*) — David Simon’s earthy Baltimore, Take 1. Addictive.

Prime Suspect (*) — A gift from across the pond, Helen Mirren is astoundingly good as British police inspector Jane Tennison. Start with Prime Suspect 1 and follow her career and life. Brilliant stuff.

The Shield (*) — You’ll feel guilty for hoping that LA cop Vic Mackey doesn’t get caught.

The Wire (*) — David Simon’s earthier Baltimore, Take 2. Widely acclaimed for its portrayal of life in inner city urban America.

(*) = has completed series run; episodes available on DVD.

But where’s the union?

Even the best cop dramas miss on the realities of being in unionized work settings. Most rank-and-file police officers and detectives are unionized, and collective bargaining negotiations over salaries and benefits have a significant impact on their lives. In most cop shows, however, the union presence is practically invisible, usually limited to calling in a union rep when an officer gets in trouble.

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